Dual Difficulty: Being a Pakistani Shia Woman on the Internet

The first ten days of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar and a month of reverence for the Shia Muslim community around the world, is always a challenging time laced with uncertainty of security. The religious gatherings that have been subjected to unprecedented and constant violence on the community for years in Pakistan saw relatively fewer incidents of attacks in 2021, and even fewer got reported. Those that did get attention from the media did so because of the internet which has become an important tool for marginalised communities to share the incidents of oppression and violence they face. 

However, in doing so, the community members have been subjected to further hatred in online spaces.

Sukaina*, a 25-year-old Shia woman residing in Karachi, very frequently talks about this oppression through her social media channels and is also behind an Instagram page that talks about Shia culture. Along with her friend, she decided to start the page to clarify myths about the Shia beliefs, share historical perspectives as well as the relationship of Shia sect with other religions in the world. The page aims to discuss religion in an approachable way. She says that in raising voice about the oppression on her profiles, she was subjected to harassment, and it got to the point where she felt tired of the hatred she received, often just for doing a live session on inter-faith harmony. 

This experience is not unique to Sukaina, rather a common lived reality for the Shia community, especially the women and non-cishet and effeminate men, for whom existing in online spaces is perhaps as horrible as offline spaces. The community which has seen violence against it since the 1960s when an incident at Thehri – a small town in Sindh, took lives of more than 100 Shias on Ashura, and is aware about the perils put in all spaces with regards to their survival. Life on the internet is not a bed of roses for any person who belongs to a marginalised community, but if the person does not adhere to heteronormativity, the space becomes even more hostile. The difficulty to exist online with your religious identity as a Shia and your gender identity as a woman combines the challenges that two groups individually face.

Identity and the Floodgates of Vitriol 

Easily identifiable by their names, Shia community usually gets the short end of the stick when it comes to their treatment as a marginalised community because while they are not constitutionally declared ‘minorities’, their treatment is not far from what is meted out to them.

Syeda* who has been working as a communications specialist for a while felt that it becomes difficult to tread the path because both of her identities, gender and religion, act against her.

“I usually use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram but I am least active on Twitter,” Syeda says, adding that Twitter is a place where she believes violence could escalate quickly because the responses are quicker and get buried in many other notifications. She further says that often to steer clear of any hatred she can be subjected to, she has to adopt a humorous tone in her online speech. “Over the last two years, I have become more vocal about both of my identities. I tend to employ sarcasm in the thoughts I share, and they lean more toward the accountability of the state pertaining to the violence against all minorities, religious or gender,” Syeda says, adding that her focus once used to be on promoting a positive image of Pakistan, but, “now it is hard to do it, thanks to all that’s happening around us,” she says. 

Syeda has also received a lot of backlash for being vocal on the internet, even when the topic is not religious per se. She believes that this vitriol was linked to her identity as a Shia woman.

“Last year during the urban flooding, I had posted on a popular group which provides updates about conditions in the city like traffic etc, about the shelters provided by the Imambaras but as soon as I posted that, there were extreme comments that the offer was to ‘convert’ people to Shia’ism and that they would rather die in the rain than seek help from Shias,” she informs. In another instance, Syeda says that raising voice about the oppression is challenging when not just people around do not approve of the discussion, but also platforms that have over time become an important tool for oppressed voices, censor community members. She says, “I wanted to go live to cover the sit-in by the Hazara Shia community in January 2021 after Hazara coal miners were slaughtered but couldn’t do so later because Facebook had restricted the feature for me, although I am not aware as to why it exactly happened, but the timings made me wonder.” 

The Shia community has been subjected to a disproportionate amount of attacks based on the misconceptions readily believed by those outside of the community, and despite various attempts to dismantle these misunderstandings, the reaction towards community members has always been more hatred. Syeda says that she routinely attempts to address these misconceptions about their beliefs in hopes to extend harmony among religious ideologies in the country, however, it has rarely been taken positively. “When I try to clear the misconceptions around events like Sham-e-Ghariban [the night of Muharram 10th], I receive such vile gaaliyan [profane words] and hear [comments] that the Shias are a product of Muta’h. My inbox would be filled with unsolicited messages and pictures with threats like ‘until now we have only beheaded the likes of you,’” she recounts the horrific experiences.

In instances like this, Shia community members find themselves not just putting a brave face to deal with the online abuse, but the onus of fact checking each claim being made against their beliefs, religion and community also falls on them.  

Syeda has been doing this labour for years, but eventually gave up owing to the realisation that her labour is not effective when abusers and extremists do not want to learn. “I used to feel the need to explain and engage about my beliefs and politics, more as a minority woman. Now, I have stopped clarifying my position because I don’t owe it to anyone. My family however does get worried about me and would tell me that my activities would lead the men of my house to go missing like so many Shia men. I feel that in such cases, women are yet to get picked up from their houses like men do,” she shares. 

Sukaina*, the 25 year-old woman from Karachi behind an Instagram page, has been using the usual social media apps like Facebook and Instagram for her work as well as personal connections where she also shares her religious beliefs. “I am very vocal about my views and I don’t feel hesitant [sharing] religious learnings, my personal choices or feminism. I feel [that] I can’t watch [oppression happening so] I aim to speak about my opinions [on them], and I am loud and proud about them.”

She adds that she is a Kashmiri Shia woman and it is extremely difficult as a member of various marginalised communities at once for her to speak out on the topics that usually are met with violence. “People of my community are killed and harassed, and nobody finds out. I believe I am a minority when it comes to my ethnicity, gender as well as my religion so I feel it is my responsibility to shed light on all of that [when] I can.”

The need for calling out oppression and sharing her opinion has not been easy for Sukaina who has been subjected to abuse on the internet for being vocal. She feels that while people are indeed entitled to their opinions, it does not warrant threats being sent to  others.

“Last Muharram, I made a response video for this woman who was saying hateful things about my sect because she was extremely misinformed and was spreading hatred. Somebody had to address all that she had said so I did [through a video], and soon after, my inbox was flooded with the words ‘kaafir kaafir Shia kaafir’ [Shias are infidels],” Sukaina adds. The abuse targeting Sukaina became intense as fake profiles started harassing and threatening her with rape threats that she thinks would not have been sent if she were a man. She says, “If I were a Shia man, I don’t think they would receive rape threats, after which I did feel scared. The Motorway rape incident had recently taken place and a man told me that he wished that happened to me.”

In instances where women and gendered bodies are attacked with abuse on the internet, it is always sexualised and gendered in nature. A research conducted by Media Matters for Democracy titled Hostile Bytes looks at the kind of online violence women journalists face online. It found that almost 53 percent of respondents said that women journalists face sexualised abuse on the internet very frequently. 

The abuse directed at Sukaina* did not stop her from holding her ground because she believes that those who are attacking her from behind the screens lack the courage to face her through a dialogue. However, her fears as a result of violence on online spaces did translate to her offline life as she started feeling more unsafe in public spaces and now carries a taser gun. 

Nida*, a Shia queer activist who has been very vocal about her gender identity is part of larger rights movements like Aurat March and missing persons in the country. Being active in these spaces is already a threat to her safety, but Nida believes that she will continue to occupy spaces.

She says, “I am very open about my orientation as well as my religious identity, and since Aurat March last year, there have been individuals as well as groups who have been stalking my movements in an organised fashion. They have my pictures in public and those are often used against me, especially on Twitter where everything gets uncontrollable, but the possibility to report and get some action taken is still plausible unlike Facebook.” 

Nida* adds that it is not uncommon for her to get rape and death threats in her inbox for defending her religion because, “it is not very difficult to reach my profile, and while I engage in a serious discussion, trolls would start commenting with my pictures where I am wearing makeup to derail the conversation,” she says. 

She takes a deep breath before talking about an instance where one of the people on an online public Facebook group started sending her vile messages in inbox, and within three days was able to track her location as well. 

“Online activism has been traumatising for me because of these reasons as the boundaries between online and offline vanish so quickly that it is mortifying,” she says adding that Instagram is perhaps one app where she feels comparatively safer because she feels a broader sense of control about the people she has on her profile and thinks that the app resolves reports quicker than Facebook or Twitter. 

Women who have had some power in the government also fall prey to the duality of gender and sect. Former MQM Parliamentarian Saman Jaffri who is also a media and communications expert has also felt increasingly scrutinised over her religious and gender identity over the internet. An active user of Twitter, she also engages with her followers who belong to all schools of thought, political and religious. 

“I used to participate in the Parliament but even there I was never taken as a Parliamentarian rather as a Muhajir, Shia woman. Misogyny was prevalent there as well and whenever I would give an impassioned speech [that] my male counterparts [would be] lauded for josh-e-khitabat [fiery speeches], I was dubbed as aggressive. The same can be seen on my social media as well. Whenever I have spoken for marginalised communities, my opinions have always been taken in the light of religious perspectives rather than humanitarian ones,” she says.

Saman feels that while men are often spared on the internet, women very frequently become targets of character assassination when there is no logical reasoning to refute them in a discourse. 

“From getting fat shamed to threats of rape, getting my male relatives kidnapped, I have seen all when it comes to speaking against rising extremism in the country.” Saman says, adding, “When Islamic Council of Ideology was pushing to decrease the age of marriage for girls, I had to face internalised misogyny by other women parliamentarians as well which makes it difficult to navigate the situation, because I am constantly reminded of my sectarian affiliation, which I refuse to hide. There are many users who use pseudonyms to harass and troll us and I have seen that whenever women choose to speak about topics which may be controversial, there is a price awaiting to be paid- sar pe kafan bandha hota hai (to be certain of your own death at the hands of your enemies),” she says. 

The fear of Blasphemy and self-censorship 

Since the passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in August 2016, online spaces have become subject to increased scrutiny of the authorities and the citizens alike waiting to accuse people of committing a crime. The said Act which governs cybercrimes on the country’s internet, coupled with various other laws, has repeatedly been used against oppressed communities to accuse them of serious crimes such as blasphemy. An atmosphere of self-censorship is developed where posting something to clarify misconceptions around someone’s religious beliefs could easily be labelled as blasphemy and a mob would erupt to violently attack the person, both online and offline. As a result, religious minorities constantly live under fear and find themselves suppressing their voices on the internet.

Syeda* has also experienced the fear in her inbox. 

“My family gets worried because of this very reality. [People] feel they can [report] to the FIA that I have committed blasphemy because of how they may have interpreted my posts,” she says, adding that she regularly finds herself consciously making decisions on the internet on the basis of what could potentially lead to accusations. “I don’t make my posts public so often now because I don’t know when they may be taken in [the wrong] context. Whether I post about gender-based violence or injustice against oppressed communities, the approach to threaten is usually the same. I get messages like ‘we have only cut your throats till now’. These are indeed scary times,” she says.

Nida*, like others, has also received messages where the senders would threaten her through fake blasphemy allegations especially because of her queer identity.

Whereas despite the incidents faced by Sukaina, she has not thought of self-censoring herself.

She says, “I haven’t self-censored myself because I don’t think I am wrong, and I don’t feel anyone can enforce their beliefs down our throats.” Sukaina acknowledges that practicing her religion is her Constitutionally protected right as a citizen of Pakistan. She adds that when she is facing a particular kind of violence on the internet, her female friends of other marginalised religious communities in the country also face similar attacks for talking about their beliefs. Sukaina says, “None of the digital spaces is safe for women from marginalised communities.” She maintains that this should not be a hindrance in sharing opinions. 

Regarding the current climate, Saman, the former parliamentarian, however, does feel that many Shia women are self-censoring themselves or have gone anonymous to not fall prey to blasphemy allegations. 

“Earlier, the discourse was quite open but now many feel unsafe and have even left the country because online [abuse] translates to offline [violence] very soon. Those who are still here are conscious of their opinions because persecution has also increased. The nitty gritty of our belief system, which is very personal, is now being attacked in public,” she said.

Pointing out the incident last Muharram where an elderly Shia man was arrested during Ashura procession for reciting a passage from Ziarat-e-Ashura held in reverence by the Shia community, Saman says that it appeared as a designed campaign to create a rift between Shia and Sunni sects, “It seems like it is the will of those who uphold the majoritarian view that peace should not prevail.” 

She also feels that sometimes political correctness is forced upon the marginalised as they walk on eggshells in online spaces that one ‘wrong’ sentiment can land them into trouble. 

“It is not humanly possible to be so vigilant at all times. Earlier there was just bullying but now it becomes very dangerous, and there isn’t any law which would defend the marginalised. Now, even before writing something so inherently Shia as Labaik Ya Hussain (Here I am, Oh Hussain), I would think 100 times to not offend some random person out there because of the ever-expanding blasphemy law which keeps getting legitimised due to the presence of [certain political-religious ideologies],” Saman shares. 

Zoya Rehman, a human rights specialist and a political activist, says that online spaces have been hostile to women and queer individuals, and belonging to religious marginalised groups only adds to their woes. 

For Zoya, online spaces are very much public in nature so to think that as a woman and then her identity as a Shia woman, who may or may not be engaging about her religious identity, becomes almost like a twofold transgression.

She says, “It is unfortunate for Shia women that they have to navigate these forms of discrimination. Secondly, I feel that if you do belong to a marginalised group, self-censorship is a prevalent part of life amongst such communities and has effects on online spaces in Pakistan. For women who have to self-censor at all times in any case so they wouldn’t put themselves in danger, this becomes a constant negotiation.”

Zoya further shares that feminist women are already constantly castigated and vilified for their opinions, and “if she owns up to her Shia identity and dares to speak up about her beliefs that religion has become such a hotbed of violence and sectarianism and hate speech, she is crossing an unthinkable line to a lot of hardliners in the country. [These women] are particularly vulnerable in online spaces because their religious identity exacerbates the danger that they experience.” 

No laws to offer respite

Talking about the legal framework, Zoya feels that while the constitution of Pakistan recognises the rights of religious minorities, there are no special human right laws at present which protect such groups rather they are confined to personal family laws only. She stresses that even those laws only cater to the non-Muslim minorities while the Ahmadiya community or the marginalised Shia community do not come under that area. 

“The Shia community gets a lot of backlash because of the rise in sectarian hatred [and] especially in the past year and a half, it has increased exponentially during the pandemic. Shia women are on the receiving end of the hatred owing to the intersectionality of religion and gender. These forms of marginalisation intersect that renders them more vulnerable as compared to Shia men,” Zoya says, acknowledging that the violence to religious minorities does not spare men either. ”Perhaps the only caveat would be that when women are generally seen to transgress, when they enter a public space, beyond the chadar and chaar deewari, then the other can do anything with them,” she says.

Zoya, who is also a lawyer by training, says that laws such as PECA itself that are supposed to protect women have time and again been used against them as a tool to censor and silence them. “PECA’s sections are generally discriminatory towards women which can be seen through numerous defamation cases these days. Over here, it’s about the fact that the FIA is the prosecuting body [which] itself needs a lot of sensitisation, and aggrieved women are generally not entertained or listened to in a way they should be. People behind the body are very regressive and Shia women would experience many hurdles when it would come to filing complaint against religion discrimination.” 

The process of formulating these laws have been devoid of consultation from the marginalised communities, and depict a gap in addressing their interests. “When it comes to the religious discrimination and online laws governing the internet, we have seen that the discourse around it is very skewed because it is mostly Muslims who hold a majoritarian view, which is the Sunni Muslims, who are anxious that their beliefs are endangered. Even Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) also caters to blasphemy,” Zoya highlights and adds that she does not think PECA or other similar laws aim to safeguard the rights of the marginalised, rather, “it appears to be the other way round where they want to uphold the majoritarian view, which espouse national security narrative, at the expense of all minorities,” she says. 

The violence that ensues on the internet targeting Shia women for their religious and gender identities,  is not only propagated by the individuals who feel comfortable to constantly target them, but is also supported by the laws that fail to at-risk communities’ interests from the drafting stage till the implementation stage. While Shia women and queer individuals may not get deterred by the online violence against their sectarian and gender identity, they sure are trying to find ways to navigate the hostility till there is any possibility of laws for protection. However, looking at how the state is trying to curb voices which do not align with its strict narrative as seen with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement of the formation of a religious authority to monitor social media as well, the future does not seem promising for the marginalised.

A Women Deliver Conference Media Fellow, United Nations Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellow and a reporting journalist since the past five years, Zoya Anwer has worked for two major English newspapers in Pakistan and has covered a range of topics related to gender equality, ethnic and class dynamics as well as social relationships between individuals and cities. She also writes fiction and was published in an Indian magazine, The Equator Line.

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